Palo Alto's newest official priority is tricky to define and difficult to oppose.
Dubbed "Healthy Cities/Healthy Community," the priority was adopted by the City Council at the January retreat but has languished away from the public eye ever since, despite the fact that it touches on just about every policy decision that the council and staff have taken, from bike projects to vending machines at City Hall.
On Monday night, the council agreed that "Healthy Cities" should be more than just a feel-good priority, though feeling good is undoubtedly a critical component. To that end, council members voiced unanimous support for adopting a resolution that commits officials to building a "healthy city and healthy community."
The resolution, which is still subject to some revision, will focus on four areas: healthy culture, healthy environment, healthy food access and healthy workplace.
It includes 28 different commitments, ranging from broad and vague ("promote the connection between health and happiness" and "support emotional and mental well-being") to practical and specific ("accommodate breastfeeding employees upon their return from work" and "encourage walking to meetings and use of stairway").
Rob De Geus, director of the Community Services Department, said the concept of "Healthy Cities" dates back to 1986, when the World Health Organization adopted an initiative in Europe defining a healthy city as "a city that is continually creating and improving those physical and social environments and expanding those community resources which enable people to mutually support each other in performing all the functions of life and to develop their maximum potential."
The League of California Cities has been running its own campaign, called "Healthy Eating, Active Living," which has received resolutions of endorsement from 180 cities in the state.
Now, Palo Alto is looking to join the fray and to put its own imprint on the movement. The resolution that the City Council discussed Monday was the first significant step in this effort.
Championed by Mayor Karen Holman and Councilwoman Liz Kniss, the "Healthy Cities" priority has not received the type of attention the council has devoted to such as parking, traffic and infrastructure issues.
Yet, as staff reported Monday, things have been brewing behind the scenes. Since spring, a committee of stakeholders has been meeting every month to discuss ways to promote healthy living.
In addition to city staff, the group included local commissioners and officials from Stanford University, local nonprofits, the Palo Alto Unified School District and citizen groups.
By Palo Alto's standards, the process has been unusually opaque. The meetings have not been publicized and the committee's work has taken place with little input from either the council or the broader community.
Holman and Kniss, who participated in the group's early activities, effectively functioned like an ad hoc committee whose creation the full council never discussed, much less authorized. And while staff reports typically get released 10 days before a council meeting, the one prepared for the Monday discussion wasn't made public until late Thursday, four days before the meeting.
Councilman Tom DuBois was one of several council members who on Monday expressed concern about how this item was handled, noting that he wasn't even aware that the citizens committee existed.
"I do object to the process and would like it to be more transparent," DuBois said.
Yet DuBois joined the rest of his colleagues in generally praising the work that had taken place behind the scenes. The resolution, he said, "seems to build on a lot of the things we're already doing, which makes a lot of sense."
Like DuBois, Councilman Pat Burt praised the product while panning the process by which the work was produced.
"We appear to have had an ad hoc committee of the council and a community committee that the council didn't know diddly about," Burt said. "And that's really not how we would normally do things.
"It doesn't mean the product was bad as a result. It does create questions," he added.
The council voted unanimously to send the proposed resolution to its Policy and Services Committee for further refinement, before the document returns to the full council for adoption. One of the things that the committee will do is make the resolution more "aspirational" and less proscriptive when it comes to health initiatives.
This change in tone was proposed by Councilman Greg Scharff, who took issue with the language in the resolution committing the city to "make every effort" to promote the dozens of health-related policies. Scharff suggested that staff use words like "strive" to make clear that the policies in the resolution represent the council's direction without constituting any legal commitments.
He also proposed having city staff make these revisions before returning it to the full council for adoption. That proposal fizzled by a 2-7 vote, with Eric Filseth joining Scharff and the rest of the council opting to send it to the committee for more discussion.
The proposed resolution incorporates three of the focus areas that are recommended by the League of Cities: healthy environment (which pertains to planning and capital projects that promote walking, biking and access to nature), healthy food access and healthy workplace (which would focus on City Hall employees).
To these three, the citizen committee agreed to add a fourth: healthy culture. According to a Community Services Department staff report, this pertains to "elements of healthy that support the social, emotional and mental wellbeing of the community."
"A healthy culture encourages expressions of creativity, supports an environment of inclusivity and kindness, and ultimately creates the connection between health and happiness," the report states.
Specific policies within this focus area include creating opportunities for "healthy aging" and "aging in place"; supporting access to museums, galleries and events; promoting "awareness and compassion for the unhoused"; and improving access and awareness to mental health support and education.
Holman stressed that the resolution doesn't seek to "dictate that we'll do all these things." She also said that the committee agreed that while the city can't do all the things in the resolution, it can "set an example and partner with members of the community to do these things."
This will mean reaching out to the Chamber of Commerce and local businesses to discuss cutting-edge initiatives for boosting employee health and wellness. This also includes an annual Health Fair, an event that the city held on Sept. 26 with participation from more than two dozen local nonprofits.
The resolution, Holman said, "is trying to cover the gaps, and fill the gaps where we don't do as good a job as we could."
Kniss, for her part, noted that the committee's work confirmed that when it comes to healthy living, Palo Alto already does pretty well. Many cities, she said, struggle with access to fresh food or experience harsh weather that makes it harder for residents to get outdoor exercise.
Palo Alto has no such problems, she said. Instead, it boasts a "supportive community" and a thriving bike culture.
"One of the things we've done here is acknowledge that we're already a pretty healthy and pretty fortunate city," Kniss said.